Quebec may toughen sprinkler laws after deadly seniors' home blaze

by Reuters
Monday, 27 January 2014 18:43 GMT

By Randall Palmer

L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec, Jan 27 (Reuters) - The Canadian province of Quebec might speed up introduction of tougher laws on installing sprinklers at seniors' residences after a fire last week that is believed to have killed 32 people, the province's health minister said on Monday.

Police braved biting cold and snow squalls in the picturesque town of L'Isle-Verte on Monday as they continued to melt the ice that has encased bodies in the ruins of the Residence du Havre, which caught fire on Thursday.

They say they have found 10 bodies and that 22 people remain missing and are presumed dead. Three victims have been identified.

The three-storey wooden home was only partially equipped with sprinklers, which are not obligatory in privately run Quebec residences where some of the residents are mobile.

A special committee of police, fire-prevention and building experts in Quebec last year started looking into how to tighten regulations on sprinklers in privately run seniors' homes.

"It's not a simple problem. If it had been simple it would have been done (already)," Quebec Health Minister Rejean Hebert told reporters after speaking to survivors.

"We're still working very hard on this and I think the tragedy of L'Isle-Verte will probably accelerate the work of this committee," he said.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said on Sunday she wants to wait for the committee's report as well as the results of the official police inquiry into Thursday's fire before deciding what to do.

"The government intends to implement more sprinklers in the facilities. It was a priority of the government before the tragedy. It's still a priority," Hebert told Reuters.

Despite media reports that a cigarette might have ignited the blaze, police said they still do not know the cause.

Rescue teams were painstakingly working their way through the ice-covered wreckage on Monday, using shovels and brooms. The magnitude of the task was underlined by the mangled debris, still about 10 feet high in places.

L'Isle-Verte, a town of 1,500 people, lies about 230 km (140 miles) northeast of Quebec City and about 65 km (40 miles) above the northern tip of Maine.

Hebert said no complaints about the residence had been registered with the provincial government before the fire.

"They fulfilled all the criteria and people were very satisfied with the services in this residence. It was clearly a model of this kind of facility," he told Reuters.

The Quebec flag hung at half-mast at the local school, where pupils were due to resume their lessons on Monday afternoon.

"It's an absolute disaster. It reminds me of what happened in Lac-Megantic," Hebert told reporters, referring to the derailment and explosion of a crude oil tanker train in a small Quebec town last July that killed 47 people.

In the wake of the Lac-Megantic disaster both the federal and provincial governments set up special funds to help meet the huge costs of rebuilding the town.

L'Isle-Verte mayor Ursule Theriault told reporters on Monday that Marois has told her the provincial government is prepared to offer financial help. Theriault did not give more details.

The disaster looks set to be the second-worst to hit a Canadian seniors' home after a 1969 fire in Quebec that killed 54 people. (Writing by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway)

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